On the Edge – Making Art with Mental Illness
Every time I wake up in the morning, I am standing on the edge of a cliff. I don’t know if today I will fall and break my bones on the rocks below, or if I will take off and fly, way too high, so high that I touch the sun and it burns me.
Some days I get lucky though. Some days I open my eyes and take a step back. Or sit down and contemplate the view. Those are the days my mind allows me to work, to focus, to be productive. And on those days I feel the pressing drive to fit everything I can into all my waking hours, because I never really know what the next day will bring.
I’m bipolar. Recently diagnosed and finally, after a long experimentation period, properly medicated. But even though I am medicated and things are relatively stable, that doesn’t mean I don’t wake up every day on the edge of that cliff. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing is for certain when you live life always on the edge.
Our society has this grossly romanticized idea about mental illness and the arts. Especially with bipolar. It’s often considered to be a form of suffering that produces good, beautiful, meaningful art. It is often thought that depressive states make us see the horror of the world more clearly and therefore we can capture it more realistically. It is often thought that mania opens us to some sort of cosmic understanding that gives us access to worlds and ideas not seen by the average person. Mental disorders are often synonymous with creation, and these ideas are fed by reality. Looking at the history of writers and artists whose lives were plagued by mental illness, or ended in suicide, or who drank (or drugged) themselves to death in an effort to self-medicate, we do find genius. There is a definite pattern there. But the problem with patterns like that is that the causal direction is unclear. Are people with mental illness drawn to the arts? Or is it that mental illness breeds artistic endeavours?
In the grand scheme of things I don’t know that answering that questions really matters. What matters the most is the idea people hold on to that suffering = good art. And I can only speak for myself (although I have heard many artists saying this as well), but that is simply not true.
When I have fallen from my cliff, deep into the jagged valley below, there is no way I can conjure words or stories. I have tried. Sometimes, if I really force myself I can write a short poem, but it is usually biographical, and it is usually painfully self-centred. To me, depression is an egocentric state, and that does not engender inspiration. When I’m at my baseline, my most ‘normal’, I care wildly and passionately about people. I listen to their stories, I reach out to connect, I find myself wondering all the time about what makes people tick. This love of people inspires me, makes me want to continue at university (where I study psychology), and makes me want to step outside of myself and write stories about others. But when I am below baseline and in depression, all that changes. I can’t muster any of my natural curiosity, I can’t spare even a second to care about others. I collapse in on myself like a dying star, shutting out all other people to make time and space to heal myself. So to me, depression ≠ good art (and sometimes it means lack of art entirely).
Mania is a trickier beast though. When I step off that cliff and start to soar, I believe I can do anything. I’m brilliant, invincible, capable of great feats of art and science and wonder. I am connected to everything, moving at the speed of light, bubbling with ideas and insights that I can barely contain. It is deceptive. It hides all my self-doubt in a blanket of grand delusion. Sounds great, right? It’s not. When the mania strikes, although I have, at times, been productive, my huge ideas about myself sweep me away. They take me down random paths that run contrary to all the things I want to do with my life and lead me completely and utterly off track. And sometimes, most of the time, my creative goals suffer in the process. So when the mania entices me down a path I shouldn’t be going, I have to spend all of my energy trying to say no. It’s addictive, alluring, but ultimately mania ≠ good art (and sometimes it means lack of art entirely).
As humans, now and in the past, we have a strange relationship with mental illness. From believing it to be witchcraft, to bleeding people as a cure, to hanging them over snake pits to try and scare the illness away. It’s been a tumultuous journey to understanding. And it still is. The brain is an enigmatic and exceedingly complex organ. Every day people are working hard to uncover its mysteries, but we are still very much in the dark. Most medications and treatments are not quite understood. In a lot of cases we know that they work, but not why they work. And because of that lack of understanding there is a huge stigma built up around being mentally ill. A stigma that I find quite contradictory, because in many ways we ask our artists to remain ill in order to keep producing brilliant works. On one hand we deny the validity of mental illness and on the other we glorify it.
This has to stop.
And the only way I can see for us to dismantle the stigma is to talk about it. Create art about it. Open ourselves up as artists and as fighters, to allow people to see the truth. The truth that suffering ≠ good art.
As someone who has the privilege to be able to talk about this, I see it as my duty to do so. I study psychology and write fictional and non-fictional stories about my own struggles and the struggles of others. I’m lucky that I can speak out, as I know not everyone can. I am lucky to have found a way to live with my life on the edge, as I know not everyone can. I am lucky to be able to sit down and write these words today, as I know not everyone can. I’m lucky to have the support and the knowledge to be able to recognize my symptoms before they get out of hand, as I know not everyone can.
The edge of the cliff is a hard place to live, but I have made it my home and more often than not these days, I’m able to take a step back, or sit with my feet dangling below the edge, take a deep breath, and decide that today is not the day to fall or fly. Instead, on most mornings, I can decide that today is the day to make good, healthy, beautiful art.
STAR SPIDER is a writer from Toronto, Canada and has recently published her debut novel, Past Tense. Star’s stories deal with mental health and LGBTQ themes and she is a student of psychology at Ryerson University. Star’s short stories and poems can be found in many places including Grain Magazine, A cappella Zoo, Necessary Fiction, Flyleaf Journal, Gone Lawn & Apeiron Review and her books, blog and publication list can be found at: starspider.ca.